While white-collar jobs may be coveted in real life, they are not so great in fiction — office work is soul-crushingly boring, or just soul-crushing in general. It has "stressful" and "unfulfilling" written all over it.
The work your character is required to do is often meaningless, repetitive and annoying. In customer service, you have to deal with crappy, disgruntled customers. Your colleagues are either a real pain, making your life even worse, or if you are lucky, they may be your companions in the suffering. Your boss will be too demanding and/or incompetent. Bosses who are too jovial and too friendly are not very popular with the team either. Higher management might be outright tyrannical. You are very likely to be yelled at. Some gentler souls are on the brink of being crushed by the corporate dog-eat-dog world. If your character is lucky enough to be promoted, expect him to deal with incompetent employees who seem to act stupid on purpose. And if they vent about this to friends or family members outside of the company, they'll often receive No Sympathy, because they have what's allegedly a "good" job. (i.e. one that can be done indoors, involves little or no manual labor, and often pays better than "blue-collar" jobs do.) And let's not even get started on the hellstorm of diseases that result from the working conditions.
In fiction, it's often presented as a source of comedy in Work Coms. Alternatively, it can appear for one episode only as a New Job Episode. Or it's a good starting point for a Character Development, when the character decides he can't take it anymore and realizes it's time to quit, ideally to Pursue the Dream Job or possibly just to accept Happiness In Minimum Wage. If the character starts rebelling, it may lead to a glorious "Take This Job and Shove It" situation.
The white-collar equivalent of Soul-Sucking Retail Job, though Soul-Crushing Desk Job has a slightly better reputation in fiction — you have to have at least some skills and a decent education, and the wages might be better, though still nothing to write home about. This is often paired with the drab uniformity of the Standard Office Setting, although the Wacky Startup Workplace might induce this as well.
Truth in Television to some degree, as many psychologists can tell you when speaking about the growing amount of white-collar people suffering from stress, depression or anxiety (or a combination of them) caused by their jobs. This trope's popularity may be influenced by the conflicting skillsets used in white-collar jobs compared to the writing industry, where paperwork and report writing are essentially opposites of creative and fiction writing; and the similarities between the two skillsets may explain why this trope is usually more positively portrayed than Soul-Sucking Retail Job. That is, white-collar workers and writers tend to be more educated and they don't have to routinely deal with customers directly.
- Aggretsuko: Retsuko works a tiring job in an office, surrounded by weirdos and bullied by her superiors, her work only made more tolerable by indulging in her hobby of hitting up a karaoke club and singing Death Metal.
- Kento Nanami of Jujutsu Kaisen was formerly a stockbroking salaryman, who realized that his job made him entirely unhappy, while an act of small-scale heroism by exorcising a tiny spirit made him feel better. He quit his job, and became a jujutsu sorcerer.
- In Zom 100: Bucket List of the Dead, Akira's old job as a commercial writer and producer was so awful that he has lingering PTSD from the experience. He wasn't even allowed to go home on his first day on the job, his coworkers regularly bragged about how much unpaid overtime they got, and he was repeatedly chewed out for missing deadlines that changed on a whim. He's so tired that he can't even work up the energy to clean his apartment for three whole years. It's telling that the first thing Akira does upon realizing he's in a Zombie Apocalypse is cheer about how free he is now that he never has to go back to his awful workplace.
- Wanted: Wesley's life was a crappy one with this crappy job and a boss who was a total bitch, and whose best friend is cheating with his girlfriend. That was before his life was turned upside down when he joins an international conspiracy of comic book supervillains.
- Every character in Dilbert works such a job. The strip takes place in a bureaucratic hell-hole (with a boss who may literally be Satan) of an office populated by illogical and uncooperative employees who all seem to enjoy making each other miserable. The end stage of this soul-crushing process is called "Numbing", where the worker retreats into a Happy Place and becomes an Empty Shell.
- Bob Parr of Pixar's feature The Incredibles used to be a superhero, until litigation reduced him to being an insurance adjuster in a soulless cube farm. Bob's only relief comes from helping claimants outwit the bureaucracy, which results in Bob's heartless boss roaring his name like an expletive.
- Inner Workings stars a guy named Paul who works at an office building called "Boring, Boring, and Glum". Nobody in the office enjoys their job, but Paul (and, it's implied, everyone else) feels obligated to do nothing but work. The whole point of the short is that Paul learns to find a balance between Emotions vs. Stoicism and becomes all the better for it, to the point that the whole office becomes a much more lively place.
- In Wanted, Wesley's life was a crappy one with this crappy job and a boss who was a total bitch, and whose coworker and best friend is cheating with his girlfriend. That was before his life was turned upside down when he joins an elite international assassins group.
- In American Beauty, Lester Burnham works a boring desk job that, along with his troubled marriage, he believes is killing him. As part of his midlife crisis, he blackmails his boss, quits his job, and goes back to flipping burgers, which he finds far more satisfying.
- The narrator of Fight Club works in a corporate job that he finds extremely unfulfilling and meaningless.
- Sam Lowry from the British sci-fi comedy Brazil has eluded capture by State agents, and tries to earn a living working for Mister Warrenn. Sam is taken through a bleak and dingy building to a narrow office with minimal furnishings, and is welcomed thusly: "There you are: your own number on your very own door. And behind that door, your very own office. Welcome to the team, DZ-015!" Oddly, Sam is never told exactly what he's supposed to do in that office, and the only reason this job doesn't become a mindless tedium is that Sam finds himself in a tug-of-war for desk space with the neighboring office.
- Tom Hansen of (500) Days of Summer wants to be an architect, but he ends up at a greeting card company. Although there is no hostility in the office, Tom feels that his job is monotonous, boring, and he has no passion for it. The upside is meeting Summer. By the time Tom and Summer break up, Tom undergoes a downward spiral, and the final straw for him that drives him to quit this job is a boardroom meeting with ranting about inspirational quotes on love.
- Joe from Joe Versus the Volcano works in an oppressive office with aggressive fluorescent lighting and an awful boss. When he learns that he has a brain cloud, he finally gets the courage to tell off his boss and quit his job.
- This is the background of the film 9 to 5. It centers around three women who revolt from this and take revenge on their boss, while simultaneously improving things at their job.
- Office Space is all about our main character Peter Gibbons and his friends working a dead-end job at the Initech software company under Bill Lumberg, a Mean Boss obsessed with TPS reports. When their jobs are threatened because the bosses have decided to downsize, they hatch a Stealing from the Till scheme. However, no one gets it worse than Milton, an extremely introverted person who is hounded by Lumberg throughout the film before Going Postal and burning down Initech. Peter decides to quit his job and live a happier life as a construction worker.
- Il posto: Corporate drudgery, as teenaged Domenico is forced to quit school and take a job as an office drone. The messenger sits in a waiting room barely big enough for his desk, and puts up postcards from other people's vacations to look at. A retiree is so conditioned to office work that, three months after his retirement, he still comes into the office and just sits around all day. Another worker kills himself. Domenico is left with a Thousand-Yard Stare as he contemplates his future.
- In Eileen, Eileen works as a secretary at a prison. She hates all her coworkers, and her job consists of pointless bureaucracy and filing and wasting the time of visiting mothers in order to distract them from the misery of long waits for short times with their children. Eileen seems to hate it, and has to drink on the job to get her through the day.
- In The Ferryman Institute, Charles' job as a ferryman is to meet with the deceased at the moment of their death and convince them to move on to the afterlife. He is given a very limited amount of information to work with (often a name with cliff-notes of their life if even that) and a limited time to convince them. While Charles is very competent at his job, the only reason why he is so good at it is because he knows how to empathize with the souls he takes care of, and since death is an inherently depressing thing to manage, 200 years of being a ferryman has made him depressed and distant, a mindset compounded by him being too stubborn to confide in anyone about it and the many, many failed attempts at retiring.
- Love Anthony: After Jimmy graduated from college, he spent a year working a desk job at a small software company. He hated being trapped indoors and found the work soulless, and he admired his father's work as a lobsterman, so he moved to Nantucket and became a scalloper.
- My Dark Vanessa: After graduating college, Vanessa works a variety of administrative assistant jobs, hating both the work and the environment. When she catches herself Googling "what should you do if being at work makes you suicidal," she decides to take a front desk position at a hotel instead, which doesn't pay as well but prevents a nervous breakdown.
- Chandler Bing works as a data analyst (funny that his closest friends can't even remember his position) for a corporate company. He assumes it is temporary and wants to do something else, but he gets stuck in the company for a long time. He is eventually promoted and gets his own office. His former colleagues become his subordinates (which is a thing he hates because he can't be too friendly with them) and his direct boss is a guy who wants to socialize with him (which is a thing he also hates because he and Monica are dragged to activities they don't particularly enjoy). The money is great, but he still absolutely hates his job. He eventually quits after he's forced to relocate to Oklahoma and work over Christmas.
- In one episode, Phoebe gets a temporary job selling toner over the phone. The very first prospective client she calls is on the verge of suicide. He works in a cubicle as an Office Supplies Manager and nobody at the office seems to notice him. He says that after ten years at this job, none of his colleagues remember him or pay him any attention, not even when he screams at them that he's going to kill himself.
- The two-parter "The One That Could Have Been" shows a What If? scenario. We learn what could have happened if Phoebe had worked as a stockbroker. In that reality, Phoebe is a chain-smoking workaholic who earns a lot of money. She doesn't dislike the job but she's apparently very stressed. She loses several million dollars and gets a heart attack. When she returns to her job, she finds out she is fired (her friends wanted to protect her and didn't give her the message) and has another heart attack. In this alternate reality, she's very dismissive of her previous career choices and hobbies, like being a masseuse and playing the guitar, which she loves in the normal timeline.
- How I Met Your Mother:
- Marshal Eriksen dreams of becoming a lawyer because he wants to save the environment. In season one, he gets an internship in a company where his friend Barney also works. One episode shows them having fun, enjoying a war of pranks with a guy who works in a building opposite of theirs. When he later gets a stable job at another corporation, he quits very soon. Later he gets a job at the company where Barney works, but he doesn't work with Barney and gets yelled at constantly, which he takes very hard. He also hates himself for working for a corporation that destroys the environment.
- Ted works as an architect, which is a job he loves, but one episode shows his incompetent, past-his-prime boss who gives him meaningless tasks (like creating brown Styrofoam trees for a model of a skyscraper which looks blatantly phallic) and generally is just abusive to his team. When Ted gets promoted to project manager, his former boss acts like a dick and tries to undermine him at every opportunity.
- In the Monk episode "Mr. Monk Goes to the Office", Natalie complains about the monotonous nature of office work and compares office workers to drones. Given that Monk likes things the same, this more intrigues than off-puts him.
- Parodied in "It's a Terrible Life" episode of Supernatural. Dean Smith and Sam Wesson have no memory of ever being the legendary badass monster hunting Winchester Brothers. Instead, they both work in corporate America, Dean as a big wig executive, Sam at a dead-end cubicle job as tech support. Both sense that they are out of place, but neither can figure out why. Sam has increasingly bizarre nightmares as his memories try to re-surface and he frequently questions how he ended up in such a crappy job. By the end of the episode, after successfully killing a ghost that was haunting the building, he can no longer contain his dissatisfaction, uses a club to destroy his always-ringing telephone and quits, to the bewildered stares of his frightened co-workers.
- Better Off Ted: Linda (the only member of the main cast who is neither a manager nor a researcher) is constantly trying to avoid the boredom by engaging in small, safe acts of rebellion, such as stealing all the creamer from the coffee stations (her desk is full of it) or throwing donuts into the ventilation system (which she eventually turns into a competitive sport).
- In the finale of The Shield, Vic is put in such a position (see also Desk Jockey), and he finds it extremely boring and insulting. Vic wants to be out on the streets, in the thick of the action, busting asses, and barking orders. Instead, he gets placed in the exact opposite position (no fame, no action, no authority, and no loopholes) to satisfy a contractual obligation with the Feds.
- Dispatches From Elsewhere: Peter's programming job for an online music streaming service that is totally not Spotify; he doesn't actually get to listen to a lot of music on the job. In the first episode, a co-worker approaches him to talk, but all Peter can apparently hear is "Work stuff. Work stuff. Work work work. Work stuff." When Simone comes to visit, he's embarrassed — not to see her there, but rather that she can see how lame his job is.
- What We Do in the Shadows: Colin Robinson is an energy vampire who drains his victims' life force through boring or annoying them. His hunting ground: a large corporate office.
- In Fargo Season 2, one of the characters gets one of these. It's Mike Milligan's reward for his successes in Fargo. He wanted to be a high-ranking criminal kingpin, and succeeded, but his crime syndicate is pivoting to White-Collar Crime. His superiors intend it as a genuine reward, but for the Cultured Badass Milligan, who excels in violent situations, it's a terribly ironic fate.
- "The Day Before You Came" by Abba is about how the singer's routine is so complete that she doesn't even specifically remember that day, but she assumes it was the same as every other one, with the implication that the following day changed everything.
- "Code Monkey" by Jonathan Coulton is about a man who has a rather monotonous job as a coder on top of having an overbearing boss. He admits that he should leave his job, but he's in love with one of his co-workers, so he won't.
- Hypnosis Mic gives us "Doppo Kannonzaka", an exhausted Shinjuku salaryman whose desk job makes him blow off steam via rap. His framing device is that he uses his work phone as his Hypnosis Microphone, and he absolutely rips into it once he's able to let loose.
- The protagonist of "Echo Beach" by Martha And The Muffins says "my job is very boring, I'm an office clerk", and the thought of returning to Echo Beach is the only thing that keeps her going.
- Kat McSnatch has "Daydream", where she talks about how awful the 9-to-5 routine and the workplace as a whole are. The only salvation she sees? Winning the Lotto and getting herself and the listener/her boyfriend "blotto" (aussie for drunk).
- Dolly Parton has "9 to 5," which is the catchiest, bounciest tune you'll ever hear about how much it sucks to work a dead-end job.
- The music video to Zhaojiabang's "La Patience" is about a man who lives a monotonous desk job in a smoggy city. All the people are depicted as "zombies" going through the motions. When the protagonist is able to snap out of this zombie-like state, he's forced back into it by metal chains chasing him. His only way of escape is jumping off a building.
- In The Producers, Leo Bloom dreams of being a Broadway producer, but is stuck at his job as a CPA. After meeting with Max Bialystock and being late to his job, he is lectured by his Bad Boss Mr. Marks and sent to slave away over accounts like the rest of the employees. He spends the day daydreaming about being a producer, before quitting via song to put on Springtime for Hitler. The backup chorus is even all of the other accountants singing "Unhappy, very unhappy".
"I spend my life accounting
With figures and such
To what is my life amounting
it figures, not much."
- In Diner Dash, Flo is originally a stockbroker working for Mr. Big's corporation. After being bombarded by spreadsheets, she promptly bolts out. When she sees a run-down diner, she starts running her restaurant business.
- The Stanley Parable starts with the titular Stanley, sitting in a tiny office and typing whatever appears on his computer screen, before going off in other, bizarre directions.
- In Stardew Valley, before they decided to move to Pelican Town, the Player Character was working at Joja Corporation, which is seen as monotonous and depressing.
- In the adult Bara Genre game Strange Flesh, Joe works at one, and he goes to drown his sorrows every night. On one certain night, he stumbles upon the titular gay bar, and his life changes forever...
- In Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, Nathan Drake, after a life of adventure and fortune, settles himself into a normal job in New Orleans. In one scene he's filling papers late at night for the diving company he works for and is visibly bored with the task.
- Working at Chalfont, Chalfont and Chalfont Inc. in Mouth Sweet is an exercise in drudgery, degradation and dehumanization, as you're stripped of your identity and assigned a series of increasingly bizarre and unsettling tasks, all while having to contend with the invisible bugs wandering the halls. Fail to protect yourself and you'll be mauled to death, with your corpse regarded as nothing more than a minor inconvenience for the janitors to take care of.
- In one strip of League of Super Redundant Heroes, a fellow Keith works with is convinced that he's stuck in a "Groundhog Day" Loop. Keith has to explain to him that it just feels that way because the job sucks so much.
- xkcd strip Academia vs. Business contrasts academia and business with their reaction to solving a seemingly impossible programming problem; the professor is amazed and sees this as a revolution in queuing theory, the boss just gives the programmer another issue that is insultingly easy in comparison.
- Men in Hats: One strip starts with Jeriah finding a briefcase and decides to join the businessworld. He's at a desk for about ten minutes before all life is drained from him.
Jeriah: I no longer remember joy.
- Something*Positive had Davan work in Medicaid billing, which is exactly as soul-crushing as it sounds.
Kharisma: Um, yeah. I have a question. What do we do to remove any overwhelming pangs of grinding financial salt into the emotional wounds of the unfortunate?Answer
- One of the viewpoint characters in Getsuyoubi no Tawawa appears to work in this sort of job, though we don't see much of his workplace and his story began with the end result of his time there (he was considering killing himself before meeting Ai at the train station). Kiseki Himura wrote that he partly based it off his own time as a salaryman before he quit to pursue his art career, and the series itself started as Twitter posts to cheer up those salarymen that had to get up for work on Monday morning.
- Manic Pixie Dream Wife: Working in an office as a secretary for an insurance company seems to take its toll on manic-pixie Simone seems to gradually lose her adorable free spirit ways. Instead of her quirky clothes, she wears 'corporate clothes' and sensible black shoes, and most importantly, she stops wearing her cute hair decorations. Chance is afraid that he broke her by insisting that she work and also compares her to a robot doll.
- The Simpsons: Homer Simpsons is well established as hating his job as a safety director at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant. In "And Maggie Makes Three", when he and Marge only have two children, he figures a way to support his family with a job he will enjoy more — he wants to work in a bowling alley. Funny that Homer happily trades his cushy job with a place where he has to work manually or deal with dirty shoes. Homer ecstatically quits, making sure Mr. Burns, the owner of the plant, knows how much Homer hated it. Then Marge realizes she's pregnant and Homer has to beg for his old, higher-paying job back. Mr. Burns re-hires him, but has a plaque mounted in Homer's small office that reads "Don't forget: You're here forever." Homer uses pictures of Maggie to cover letters in such a way that the plaque now reads: "Do it for her."
- In The Tick, Mister Mental takes over Tick's mind to make him commit crimes, and when he resists, Mental summons his worst nightmare to keep him in line. This turns out to be Tick at an office desk, having paperwork handed to him as other workers say he's nothing special.
Tick: A day job? In an office? My worst nightmare come true!
- Dan Vs.: In "Dan vs. The Boss", Dan and Chris get hired to work in cubicles at some vaguely-defined office. Dan avoids his work as much as possible by hiding in the bathroom for hours every day—and somehow the boss decides to promote him to management. Then it turns out the said boss is literally a demon.
- SpongeBob SquarePants has a brief cutaway gag showing a montage of an unhappy fish's daily life, in which he drives, in heavy traffic, to and from his cubicle job, leaving his house early in the morning and coming home late at night. The last snapshot has him looking out the window of his bedroom, as if thinking about how unhappy he is with his life.
Fish's wife: [offscreen] Coming to bed, honey?
Fish: Yes, dear.
- In OK K.O.! Let's Be Heroes, major villain Professor Venomous managed to become independently wealthy by patenting his scientific breakthroughs and selling them to other villains. However, he's also bored to tears by the bureaucratic mundanity of running a criminal enterprise and the endless, tedious conference calls with corporate suits for whom he clearly has no respect whatsoever.
Professor Venomous: I've been so bored for so long. The villainy I've gotten involved in is pure dreck. All I do is answer emails, make calls...